Facing One's Demons

REVIEW: 'Doom Guy: Life in First Person' by John Romero

(BulsaraAndDeacon/Wikimedia Commons, Jason Scott/Wikimedia Commons)
November 5, 2023

The video game DOOM is partially the reason I am here today. Back when my parents were dating in the '90s, they would bond by taking the role of a futuristic space Marine fighting against the forces of Hell and shoot virtual demons in the face until the early hours of the morning. My parents are just two of the millions of people who experienced such great games as DOOM and Wolfenstein 3-D. In Doom Guy: Life in First Person, John Romero, one of the greatest video game developers in history, reveals how those games came to be.

Romero takes the reader from his childhood when he fell in love with video games, through his early adult life when he became an expert coder, all the way to the "Eureka moments" when he and his id Software team created some of the great first-person shooters in video game history. It is a fascinating, accessible story of how his ingenuity, grit, and ability to find the good in difficult situations allowed him to help drive the culture and pioneer one of the most popular industries in the world.

Romero's nearly 400-page autobiography reads much like computer code, one event building upon another, all of them working together. His beginnings as the child of an alcoholic father (whom Romero stresses he did love) see him finding comfort in artistic pursuits. His mother's decision to leave that marriage takes him to California and leads to his exposure to games such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. His residence in the Golden State also puts him in close proximity to universities whose research is driving a nascent gaming industry. His mother's second marriage to a tough military man who was no fan of Romero's passion for games teaches him grit, which he needed to break into video game development as an adult and design such classics as DOOM and Wolfenstein 3-D, in which the player takes the role of an Allied soldier fighting Nazis.

The high point of the story is the dealings of what would become id Software. Romero captures the great moments his team members, such as expert coder John Carmack, had as a game development division of Softdisk and eventually as their own company. Perhaps the best instance of this is when he describes Carmack's innovation for side-scrolling video games, which helped the team create its Commander Keen series, the precursor to Wolfenstein 3-D and DOOM. Romero stresses the groundbreaking nature of the discovery without becoming bogged down in esoteric computer code, describing it as "like a coding version of the Rosetta Stone. It was like E=mc2." The great strength in the way Romero relates such advancements is that even someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of coding and game development can understand their gravity.

Another such endearing anecdote that illustrates the magic of the moment is when Romero recounts the creation of DOOM's iconic cover art. The id Software team hired a model to pose in various positions like he was fighting demons. Romero was not particularly impressed by any of the poses the model made, so he attempted to give him direction. With the model still not doing what he wanted, Romero stepped in and posed himself, finally making the outline for a dramatic picture on the game's box, the slayer using a plasma gun to fend off attacking demons, one of which is grabbing his arm. "I had inadvertently become Doomguy," Romero writes.

The development of id Software's games was not all charming fun, however. Romero does not shy away from the challenges inside the company, which became especially apparent during the development of Quake, where players battle monsters (as well as each other) in several maze levels. Romero is upfront about the mistakes he made and the lessons he learned from them. He also charitably—and without any malice—covers the conflicts he had with Carmack, which resulted in him leaving id Software. It's a mature reflection on the actions of imperfect people, among whom Romero counts himself.

Romero's account of his exit from id Software gives way to a dull finish. They contain Romero starting a new company that makes games that do not live up to the success of his previous ones. He addresses the Columbine shooting, which many attributed to DOOM because the perpetrators played the game and mentioned it in their videos. Romero spends a total of two pages discussing the tragedy, making it the book's shortest chapter. He describes the horror he felt when seeing the killers praise the game and rebuffs assertions that DOOM was responsible for the shooting. Though such content was appropriate, the little attention Romero pays to his game's association with a notable tragedy is a bit jarring. Additionally, the final chapter of the book sees Romero releasing SIGIL, an unofficial new chapter to the original DOOM. He describes wanting to "push the envelope" by indulging in more traditional and explicit satanic imagery. This choice seems to diverge from the more creative sci-fi elements of the original game, in which the player battles the Cyberdemon and mechanized Spider Mastermind.

Still, it's a quintessential American story, in which a man from humble beginnings builds himself up by creating a project that benefits others, its legend reaching to succeeding generations. Romero was a pioneer of the video game industry and made it a mainstream part of the world's popular culture. His games brought entertainment to countless people, including couples whose dates would regularly feature slaying demons on the moons of Mars and in the depths of Hell. In a way I have him to thank.

Doom Guy: Life in First Person
by John Romero
Harry N. Abrams, 384 pp., $30

Charles Hilu is a Collegiate Network fellow at the Washington Free Beacon.

Published under: Book reviews , Culture